Jesus isn’t very likable in Jesus Christ Superstar. He never smiles. He tells the lepers to heal themselves. Mopey, angsty, irascible, arrogant, needy, exhausted, and cryptic, he comes across as a crazy death-cultist, consumed with mystical worries, unwilling to engage in the political upheaval that surrounds him. Des McAnuff’s celebrated revival, imported to Broadway from Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, draws subtle connections between first-century Rome and our Occupiable times: sporting messenger bags, Apostles spend the overture running from storm-trooping soldiers like they’re Wall Street protesters; they camp out like a bunch of Zuccotti kids; with a growl, Judas draws special attention to the line “we are occupied!” in “Heaven on Their Minds.” (At the performance I attended, understudy Jeremy Kushnier played Judas; he was very good, the crowd adored him, and he deserves a break.) It’s hard not to sympathize with Simon when he exhorts Jesus to add a touch of hate at Rome in his sermons, or not to side with Judas when he berates Jesus and Mary Magdalene for wasting salable ointment on the prophet. “People who are hungry, people who are starving/Matter more than your feet and hair,” he sings in “Everything’s Alright.” Right on!
Superstar‘s theatrical coup was to position Judas as the tragic hero of the Gospels, humanizing history’s most inhuman figure. He’s the surrogate for a secular liberal audience: a disbeliever in miracles, a passionate advocate for the poor, and sympathetic, too—a pitiable pawn. Serendipitously, two shows about Christ opened in New York in 1971, and serendipitously they’re both back on Broadway right now. (Superstar began as a concept album, released in 1969.) Godspell strips Christ’s (hippiest) teachings of most of their narrative context; it’s “more about the message than the man, proselytizing a liberal theology about charity, forgiveness, and love,” I wrote in November. Superstar strips away the myth from the man, transforming the Passion into Shakespearean tragedy, with Judas at its core—not a victim of fate, like so many of the Bard’s protagonists, but of God himself. His is the greater suffering here: Jesus may be killed, but his reward is heaven and glorification; Judas is sent to hell and damned for all of history, just for doing what somebody had to do—indeed, what the show argues God made him do. “You have murdered me,” he tells God before he hangs himself, disappearing on a side ladder before a pair of feet pop out from the rafters, thirty silver pieces raining onto the stage.
Robert Brill’s set is a lot of rear scaffolding, like Rent, or an arena rock show. Superstar‘s hard rocking score—”if you plan on eating a hard candy or a soothing lozenge,” a voice announced pre-show, “you may do it whenever you like. The score will drown you out”—never stops; this is a true rock opera, with backup dancers and no spoken dialogue. (The music’s by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the lyrics, Tim Rice.) The show isn’t just a dramatically deeper retelling of Christ’s last days, but also an exploration of fame, of messiahood as a kind of rock stardom. There’s the whole superstar aspect to Superstar, its positing of Jesus as the first celebrity, one turned against and torn down by a schadenfreude-crazed public. His death is treated as a timeless tale of the hoi polloi turning against their idols—in this case, their gods. Literally.
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